Saturday, January 15, 2011

What happened at the Schellenberg anyway?

Giving the whole background to the War of the Spanish Succession is more than I can handle on a Saturday, and there's bound to be a more or less informative Wikipedia entry for it anyway.

The battle of the Schellenberg itself is rather more simple: the army composed of the Anglo-Dutch forces of John Churchill (the Duke of Marlborough, and great-great-great-great-relative of the other famous Churchill) and those of the Holy Roman Empire under Louis, Margrave of Baden, needs to get across the Danube and moves to do so at the town of Donauworth. The Bavarian army commanded by the Count d'Arco -that's a real title, despite the comic book villain overtones- wants to stop them, and decides to do that by parking itself just outside town on the Schellenberg, the tallest hill for miles.

Marlborough and Baden disagree over what to do, the englishman wanting to attack before more Bavarian reinforcements arrive, the german favouring taking things at a more measured pace. Since command is shared, there is no direct way for either of them to impose his will. However the solution comes from one of the charmingly weird practices of the time: Marlborough and Baden take turns to command the full army on alternate days. July 2nd, 1704 is Marlborough's turn in the seat, and he decides to push through with the attack. Baden goes along, presumably mumbling under his breath, and the two wings of the "Allied" army converge on Donauworth.

The Anglo-Dutch wing gets there first. Marlborough has formed an advance guard of roughly 15 battalions of infantry, and they deploy in the small valley below the Schlellenberg, while his artillery under Colonel Holcroft Blood (enough with the comic book names already) sets up outside the village of Berg and begins bombarding the Bavarian positions. Count d'Arco, who was not expecting an attack that day, hastily deploys his men behind the half-finished earthworks on the hill. A misunderstanding with the commander of the Donauworth garrison results in the fortifications between the hill and the city -and, indeed, the city's own outer fortifications- being left unoccupied (this is where an ominous chord would sound if this were an audio tape).
Marloborough's initial plan was to send half his army through the Boschberg woods and attack from two directions- a plan d'Arco's deployment suggests he expected. However the wood turns out to be too thick, and the few hours left until dusk are insufficient for the maneuver to be completed. Moving closer to Donauworth and its fortified walls is too big a risk. So, as the main body of the army begins to appear, the advance guard infantry charges up the hill and is met by a hail of fire.
 The attack falters; many of the officers, attempting to lead their men by example, are killed and wounded. After the first line is beaten back, the second line surges forward. It is also met by spirited Bavarian resistance, and d'Arco begins bringing up more troops as he recognizes there will not be an attack on his right flank. Some of the attacking soldiers are beginning to retreat- the english and dutch cavalry advances, forming a wall to keep them in their positions. Marlborough, trying to find an alternative to the slaughter, sends a lieutenant and a few men to see how strongly the outer works around the city are held.

Almost at the same time as the lieutenant returns to report there's hardly any soldiers between the city and the Schellenberg, Louis of Baden arrives with his wing of the army. The Bavarians are still heavily engaged with the Anglo-Dutch wing, so d'Arco can spare only a few dragoons to shore up his exposed left. The commander at Donauworth appears to wake up to the situation, but the force he sends to defend the outer works is weak- the battalions have to deploy in two rather than the customary four ranks to cover the whole frontage.
Baden's troops surge forward against the hasty works between Donauworth the hill, while at the same time Marlborough leads part of his reserve and the remnants of the advance guard against the Bavarian works once more.
The Bavarians on the hill hold the Anglo-Dutch at bay, even as the troops of the Holy Roman Empire steamroller through the weak French battalions near the city. Baden sends a few of his battalions to assist the hard-pressed Marlborough.
On the top of the Schellenberg Lt.Col. de Colonnie, the sole officer left uninjured, sees the Imperials approaching and realises the battle is lost. He attempts a slow, deliberate retreat back to the Danube and the bridge leading to the other side and safety. However, as Baden's troops get closer and the Anglo-Dutch finally enter the fortified perimeter, order breaks down. The retreat becomes a rout, and the fleeing soldiers are cut down or captured in their hundreds. The battle of Schellenberg is a glorious victory for Marlborough and Baden.
The battle has a considerable aftermath. Not only is a great part of the Bavarian army gone, their campaign plan is totally disrupted. The garrison commander of Donauworth crowns his lacklustre performance during the battle with a hasty retreat from the city, abandoning considerable stores of ammunition and supplies intact. Marlborough and Baden (engaged in a slowly burning but bitter rivalry over who made the greatest contribution to the victory) have won the initiative, and their army will subsequently join more of the Imperial army under Eugene of Savoy and trounce the French and Bavarian forces at Blenheim a month later.

What's not to like?

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